REVIEW: Shirley de Kock Gueller
Profound sadness and a trenchant sense of longing streak through Hosseini’s new book and yet, and yet, there’s an odd upliftment. It’s a softer read , perhaps, than his others, but a strong and complex one.
Although the narrative is essentially about a brother and sister, Abdullah and Pari, there are parallel stories, all of which add seamlessly to the atmosphere more than to the direct narrative. Hosseini calls it multi-generational family story, but in some ways it is almost like a series of short stories with overlapping characters and the overlapping themes of betrayal, loss, and separation. Set in the turbulence of Afghanistan of the ‘pewter sky’, past and present, Hosseini begins with a fable in the 50s. He keeps us with him from the poor of Shadbagh to the excitement of early Kabul and the horrors of the post-war capital, the solitude of a Greek island to Paris and San Francisco, from jihad to jinns via the complexity of relationships with their truths and lies.
With The Kite Runner still in my mind, I began this book with a feeling of impending doom. Hosseini is a captivating storyteller as he proved again in A Thousand Splendid Suns. And The Mountains Echoed is a novel of a different sort – it’s all about dislocation of physical place and mental turmoil. Drawn in by the fable of mischievous divs who take young children, I settled in to see how the story unfolded and found there were six.
The losses are huge and overwhelming – from the loss of a way of life under Taliban’s Afghanistan, to loss of movement to rheumatoid arthritis, loss of memory when Alzheimer’s arrives, and freedom when a dog destroys a face, and loss of life itself. The betrayals are equally ghastly: when a child is sold and siblings separated, this is a Sophie’s Choice of a different kind with different and equally destructive consequences. Or when a child is left wanting, or when a pretty twin is pushed to paralysis from the branches of a tree.
A reality check comes in the form of a refugee father and son returned from Pakistan to reclaim their home, only to find it occupied by a braggart warlord with a son of his own, whose perception of his father is shockingly shaken. So there’s some redemption.
It’s very now, with wars in our living rooms, and Hosseini reinforces that by the commitment of a much-needed surgeon, and then destroys our belief in redemption as another fails a girl in need of repair. Like The Kite Runner’s Amir who goes to America, so do Abdullah and other boys from the village, one of whom makes so spectacularly good that his largesse seems vulgar. At times there’s a painstaking pasting together of the pieces of a torn photograph with a patience that brings success.
And the Mountain Echoed is a story of conflict, confusion, misinformation, of children rebelling, heartbroken, when they see what tyrannical fathers really did, of secrets and sacrifice and of suicide when the secret is too much to bear; of Islam versus the west; of a kid wanting to deny his good education in Afghanistan so as not to jeopardise a place in a US college; of what women want or are entitled to, or not.
Hosseini knows how to present pain, for almost all of the characters are damaged, and there’s too little too late to bandage the wounds. Whether the idea of a finger “cut to save the hand” works, is moot at best. He also knows how to understate love. Hosseini allows the reader to swing from emotion to emotion as one learns more about his people, their lives and their fears.
Contrasts are stabbingly stark – the dusty streets of the villages of Afganistan and the paved SUV-studded highways of America, or the tree-lined avenues of France. The jaded Afghan-American boys who order chapli kabobs, the closest thing to hamburger in the Afghan-owned Abe’s Kabob House in San Francisco, where an ancient Abe of 67 is a far cry from the young Abdullah of Afghanistan; and the refugee boy who teaches the rich man’s son about values. Stark indeed is the fact that the home theatre in San Francisco could have paid for a school back home in Afghanistan.
In sketching the culture shock as one travels back from one to the other, one feels the First World is wanting. There’s a dignity in the poverty of the peasants that is sadly missing in the middle-class wealth, and Hosseini shows it beautifully. Don’t get too attached to any characters – he has a habit of rewriting them which changes the way one feels about them as he transforms them from.
A couple of parts don’t really ring true – a very rambling and almost indulgent interview in an arts magazine seems out of place. It works as a device to reveal character, of course, as it shows the “lurid melodrama of shackled beauties and doomed romances and pervasive oppression”.
Still, I couldn’t put the book down. As can be expected, Hosseini’s prose is eloquent. In the end, it may not be the story that gets you; it will be the telling of it.
Until the end, I still waited for more resolution, satisfaction, revenge, redemption, compensation and even though there’s not too much of this, I read it again and really discovered its power.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in 2013